MARQUETTE - In a strategic planning discussion this week, the Marquette County Board raised the possibilities for a future county subsidy for Sawyer International Airport, reworking the allocation of county office and building space and polling constituents about what services they want and would be willing to pay for through increased taxes.
Commissioner Steven Pence suggested a subsidy -like that formally paid to help the Marquette County Airport- may be necessary to aid Sawyer International Airport.
With fewer people flying, increased operational costs and a declining revenue stream, county officials see challenges in funding the airport.
"We need to make sure we're not drawing our general funds any more than necessary to make that a viable operation," Commissioner Greg Seppanen said. "It's going to be our test to see if we can make that viable."
In updating priority areas of focus for the board -last detailed in a strategic plan in 2005- Pence said K.I. Sawyer would continue to be important. Other priority issues the board previously listed were budget, law enforcement, economic development and county development. The board said those priorities remain important.
"I think K.I. Sawyer has to be a huge priority, both the people living there and also the new problems that have emerged with our airport with losing our (air traffic control) tower and I think we've done a good job lately in increasing some flights, which I think is helpful," Pence said. "But I think the question has been raised by this board, in terms of doing what apparently had been done in the past, some subsidy might become necessary and I think we have to do all we can for our airport."
Meanwhile, Commissioner Deborah Pellow said using the results from a 2012 study of the county's space needs -and an upcoming committee recommendation - was one of her top priorities this year.
"I think our space needs study, if we can implement something in 2014, whatever comes out of the space needs study group, is going to be imperative for law enforcement, for our budget in a lot of different areas throughout the county," Pellow said. "We need to get that done and see where we're at and what we can do with the space that we have available and if there's any opportunity to make changes in it."
Seppanen also said the space needs study was important.
"The space needs, I think it's critical in terms of budget," Seppanen said. "The way I view it, it's one of the ways we can make efficiencies within the operation through use of our facilities."
The space needs committee recommendation is anticipated this summer.
"I don't expect it to be done immediately 'cause I want it to be thoughtful and well done," Pellow said. "But I think that's going to set the tone for if there is any place where we can consolidate and ease up some monies to do some other things with."
County finance manager Sue Vercoe and auditors are developing a financial planning forecast for the next several years, which will influence, and be incorporated into, the space needs discussion.
Pence suggested asking voters about a potential new millage increase. Commissioner Gerald Corkin said the last time that was done was in 1995 when a partial mill was approved for the medical care facility and a proposal to add more road patrol officers was "beaten quite handily."
In addition to possible airport funding, the county's overcrowded jail has presented problems which will likely require more money to solve.
"The question is there with our antiquated jail and the employee costs to basically police and run that. Is a millage or a survey of the community or something like that possible," Pence asked. "Or is that just out of the question?"
Erbisch said it's absolutely possible.
"We have to work with structuring something. If you're specifically looking at an individual item, say the airport or for the jail, and putting together specific questions, those are things that can be done," Erbisch said. "I'm not aware of when we've exactly polled in that context. But that's a technique that's used."
Seppanen said he's been involved in some survey efforts in the past.
"If they're done right, they really can give you some solid direction," Seppanen said. "You get a representative sample and it does give you direction and it really does help. Of course, the main survey is who gets elected to office and why they were elected. But still, it's nice to have the public weighing in on some of this."
Corkin said the key is not asking people what they want, but what they want to pay for.
Pellow asked whether Northern Michigan University did such surveys. Erbisch said they did.
"If we could get Northern on board with some kind of survey done for us on what the public really wants as far as what they're willing to pay for, I think that would be very helpful for us as a county board. It probably hasn't been done in who knows how long," Pellow said.
Pence said he heard an expert's presentation recently, which led him to a conclusion.
"People aren't so relentlessly anti-tax as sometimes they're portrayed," Pence said. "They want to have a choice and they want to have value and things that enhance their life and they are willing to pay them. But part of it is the presentation, plus a belief that we're good stewards of their money."
Pellow also wanted unfunded state mandates added to the list of priorities.
"That also has to be something that we work very hard on to get the state to pay their bills and get rid of the unfunded mandates," Pellow said. "If we didn't have the unfunded mandates that we have, we'd be doing very well, much better at least, with our budget here in Marquette County."
Corkin said the county has been working on that for years.
"It's been falling on deaf ears, Republicans and Democrats," Corkin said, adding that state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, is expected to introduce a bill to curb unfunded mandates.
Commissioner Paul Arsenault said the strategic plan should be up-to-date and changed often, incorporating new developments.
"I think we ought to at least consider amending the document to make it look more like a living document that can change and flow based on our needs," Arsenault said.
The board voted to have Erbisch update the format of the document, then get feedback from department heads. Seppanen suggested the panel then have an ad hoc meeting on the strategic plan. A timetable for returning the revised plan to the board will be announced by Erbisch at the panel's next meeting.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org